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Carol Lee's entrepreneurial, people-centric approach to revitalizing Chinatown

The Vancouver Chinatown Foundation chair is the recipient of BIV's 2024 Influential Women in Business Lifetime Achievement Award
Carol Lee co-founded and is chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation

Late last year, Carol Lee was one of a select group of individuals appointed as members of the Order of Canada, which recognized Lee for her “transformational leadership and business acumen,” and for her commitment to the revitalization of Canada’s largest Chinatown.

Though the latter has followed initial success in business, it is perhaps Lee’s entrepreneurial approach to non-profit efforts, and the application of that business acumen to complex community work, that has helped shape the success of the nationally recognized work taking place in the historic Vancouver neighbourhood.

“I come from an entrepreneurial family. Both of my grandfathers had their own businesses. My father had his own business. Both of my brothers have their businesses, so I guess it was just kind of a natural thing for me to want to start my own business,” said Lee, who serves as chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation.

“I think what I’ve done though is I’ve used those same sort of entrepreneurial business skills, but applied them in a non-profit environment.”

Lee’s leadership of efforts to revitalize Chinatown began organically, she said.

Restaurants in the neighbourhood had been the setting for many family dinners and special celebrations over the years, said Lee, who is a second-generation Chinese Canadian and who was born and raised in the region.

But it wasn’t until Lee returned to the city in 2004 after time abroad that she began to consider the state of the community.

“I could just sort of see that the neighbourhood’s trajectory was going in the wrong direction,” said Lee, who holds a business degree from the University of British Columbia and a master of business administration from Harvard University. “I could see if we don’t do something, then the neighbourhood was probably going to disappear.”

At the time, Lee was focused on building the therapeutic skincare company Linacare Cosmetherapy Inc., which she had co-founded in 2004 with Dr. Henry Fung.

The first person she turned to with the idea to revitalize Chinatown was her father, Robert H. Lee – a philanthropist and the founder of Prospero Group and UBC Properties Trust.

“Of course, he was very discouraging, because he said this is impossible, and that is a person who’s not a stranger to tough tasks,” said Lee, who now serves as chair of the trust her father helped create.

“He said it’s impossible and it’d be 10 times harder than doing UBC Properties Trust.”

But Lee and the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation – which became a registered charity in 2012 – are proving that meaningful, people-centric and economically viable revitalization is possible.

For example, the foundation has opened the Chinatown Storytelling Centre – the first permanent exhibit space in the country dedicated to telling the stories of Chinese Canadians. And the foundation’s 10-storey, social housing project 58 West Hastings is on track to provide 121 units of housing for seniors and individuals on welfare, and another 110 units that offer rents that are geared to income.

“I’m very excited about it because it’s probably going to be one of the most affordable buildings in Vancouver,” said Lee.

“If you can improve the infrastructure, then everybody can get raised up, and so to me, that’s a more sustainable model of revitalization. It is people-centric.”

Though she set Linacare aside in around 2016 in order to fully pursue the revitalization of Chinatown, Lee continues to apply her expertise to business ventures. She opened the restaurant Chinatown BBQ approximately seven years ago, and another – Ho Ho Restaurant – is now undergoing renovations.

“We knew that restaurants were an important underpinning of a vibrant Chinatown, but it was too risky for a foundation to take on a restaurant,” Lee explained. “The concept of the restaurant is I’m going to keep the people that are working in the neighbourhood, but I’m going to do everything to sort of fix the front end.”

Within the last two months, Lee has been named as one of Vancouver Magazine’s Power 50 and as BIV’s 2024 Influential Women in Business Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, in addition to her appointment as a member of the Order of Canada. Lee is also the recipient of the Order of BC (in 2021), the YWCA Women of Distinction Icon Award (in 2022) and honorary doctorates from UBC and BCIT.

“I’ve heard from a lot of younger women who say it’s great because there’s somebody out there like a role model or somebody that looks like them,” Lee said when reflecting on her Order of Canada appointment.

“The whole community is really excited about it, because it’s kind of like they’re all sharing it. And that’s how I feel to the recognition for the work we’re doing to revitalize Chinatown.”

BIV will recognize the achievements of six female leaders at the 25th Annual Influential Women in Business Awards on March 8. For details and tickets, visit